For many mid-tier business schools, the last few years have been tough. The hyper growth of the MBA degree, making it the most popular graduate degree in the U.S., has long stalled. Some schools, including Wake Forest University and Simmons College, have recently pulled out of the full-time, on-campus MBA market after years of declining applications and enrollment. Only three months ago, Rochester University’s Simon School of Business slashed the price of its two-year MBA by nearly 14%. Meantime, enrollment in many part-time MBA programs—long a profit-making mainstay of business education—has been sliding as well.
Against this sobering backdrop, however, an explosion in alternatives to an MBA are multiplying in business schools, as increasing numbers of specialized master’s degree programs offer a quick ticket to a job. Since around 2009, top schools have been adding such programs at a dizzying pace, in traditional fields such as finance and marketing, but also responding to job-market demands with a proliferation of business analytics “big data” degrees, as well as programs covering a broad spectrum of business niches.
Half of the top-25 schools have unveiled new specialized master’s programs in the past three years – they’ve been popping up across the country like mushrooms, and attracting huge numbers of applicants. Globally, more than a fifth of prospective business students are focused exclusively on specialized master’s programs, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.
‘THESE PROGRAMS ARE MUCH CLOSER TO UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAMS ON STEROIDS’
But some business school insiders warn that some schools see the increasingly popular master’s degrees as a license to print money, and may not provide the outcomes students desire.
For people considering graduate business education, a specialized master’s presents an opportunity for a jumpstart into business, and keeps open the possibility of getting an MBA later, when advancement or a movement into general management may require it. Many programs are aimed at recent college graduates, while a smaller number offer an early- or mid-career boost.
“We don’t see these programs as sort of ‘MBA-lite,'” says Eric Johnson, Dean of the Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management. “They really are much closer to undergraduate programs on steroids.”
NOT MBA PAY, BUT NOT BAD
Six fields dominate among the specialty master’s programs at the top 50 U.S. business schools: accounting, business analytics, finance, management, financial engineering, and supply chain management.
Most programs require the GMAT or GRE exam, but unlike MBA programs, significant work experience is often not necessary, although technical degrees generally have undergraduate-level course or degree prerequisites for enrollment.
Employment rates and starting salaries for specialty-master’s graduates of the top-ranked schools tend to be reasonably high, and also strong in many mid-tier schools. The UCLA Anderson School of Management added a master’s in financial engineering in 2008. Among Class of 2014 graduates, 93% had found jobs within three months of graduation, up from 75% in 2010. Average starting base salary for the 2014 class was $85,000 (a drop from previous years – it had been $95,000 to $100,000 from 2010 to 2013, much closer to the Anderson MBA Class of 2014’s $110,000).
In the University of Texas McCombs School’s business analytics MS program – which last year had 650 applications for a 60-seat cohort – starting salaries for graduates who had come straight into the program from college was $75,000 for 2013 and 2014, with a median salary of $89,000 among all students in the two classes. The school’s 2014 MBAs, in contrast, received starting pay of $107,000. All but one of the graduates of the two business analytics classes were employed by 60 days after finishing the program.